Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Damage to Big Granite Trail

On October 3, 2004, Tom Martin and others observed recent logging damage to the historic Big Granite Trail above Four Horse Flat. I was unable to get in and see for myself soon enough; the snow flew early and blocked up the roads.

I made calls and wrote letters and eventually found that in that area two timber harvest plans (THPs) were afoot: a "10% Exemption" harvest by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), and a full THP by CHY (another lumber company). The CHY plan was still under consideration by the California Dept. of Forestry (CDF), while SPI's 10% Exemption had been approved without public comment or a formal THP.

The lands of the two companies intermix amid Tahoe National Forest (TNF) lands. I could not tell for sure whether the damage had been done by CHY or by SPI or by both.

Yesterday Catherine O'Riley and I took a quick drive up there for a look. I was worried that snow might still block the roads, but as it happened, we had no trouble. From Yuba Gap to Lake Valley Reservoir, Forest Road 19 and then FR 38 led us past Huysink Lake, past the Salmon Lake Trail, and on to the unmarked ad hoc trailhead on the crest of the divide separating Big Valley on the west from Little Granite Creek on the east.

The popular Loch Leven Lakes area is about a mile north. Salmon Lake, less.

Here we found things just as reported by Tom Martin: the road which constituted that uppermost part of the trail had been cut wider by bulldozers, and then, when the harvest was completed, it had been closed by numerous water bars, two feet high. These had been placed at 50- to 100-foot intervals along the road. At the fork, a couple hundred yards in, the right fork--which is the Big Granite Trail--was untouched, but the left fork continued raw and torn up.

I suspect the right fork, which leads to a hunter's camp and the first appearance of a regular foot trail, has been a road for a long time, possibly for nearly if not all of a hundred years; the first roads had penetrated to Huysink Lake before 1900, and there had been plans in the early 1890s to widen the Big Granite Trail into a road, for better access to the La Trinidad Mine, across the North Fork American in Sailor Canyon.

We were in Section 9, T16N, R13E.

I could go into great detail about the damage we then saw, but to keep it simple, where the trail descends through an ancient forest of huge Incense Cedar etc., a bulldozer skid trail completely obliterated it. We eventually blundered onto a certain log deck which currently forms part of the trail.

Here we were warned away by a pair of Goshawks, guarding a nest in a tall thin Incense Cedar with much mistletoe. Fortunately they did not attack.

The logging road ending in the log deck was also freshly widened and graded. We left it in an attempt to recover the original line of the trail, and had success, following it down through heavy timber into the northernmost margins of the Four Horse Flat meadow-complex.

I had followed this same trail line to this same meadow margin from the other direction, a couple of years ago. It seems to me very worth while to re-open the historic trail and avoid the logging roads.

This area stood untouched by logging until around 1990 or thereabouts. Any who were familiar with this wonderland of meadows and tall aspens and huge cedars can only bitterly regret the 1990s logging. This logging was the consequence of the sudden sale of the old railroad lands in the 1980s.

If We The People had been smart, We would have bought those railroad lands a long time ago. They would have been cheap. But no.

We continued down the Big Granite Trail through Four Horse Flat, passing the Cherry Point Trail, itself, since the ca. 1990 SPI harvest, a logging road, and showing fresh use; and after a time in which we saw no logging damage, new skid trails appeared, and the old BGT disappeared beneath debris.

It seemed to me that all the damage to the trail itself could be at least roughly repaired by a crew of five or ten people with shovels, rakes, and a chainsaw or two, in a day.

We were unable to get south into Section 17, near Sugar Pine Point, because fallen trees blocked Road 38 near the Big Granite Trail. I fear that more damage may have been inflicted upon the old Sugar Pine Point Trail, as well. The trail drops to the east side of the divide and descends slowly to Sugar Pine Flat, an amazing stand of giant pines on TNF lands in Section 20. Part of this historic trail escaped destruction in the ca. 1990 SPI logging, and friends of mine and I have worked to maintain the almost-intact section, cutting back the Huckleberry Oak.

Just because nine-tenths of an old trail has been ruined by logging, does not mean that the surviving one-tenth should be abandoned.

I have been advocating TNF acquisition of these privately-held lands for a number of years now. Some sections have been purchased: Section 19, west of Sugar Pine Flat; and sections 11, 15, and 21, running down Big Granite Canyon to the North Fork. The good work of land acquisition should continue with all speed.

The "10% Exemption" harvest scenario allows timberland owners to harvest up to 10% of the standing timber without having to file a full Timber Harvest Plan. As I understand it, no new roads are constructed, but new skid trails are allowed as necessary. There is no public comment.

More to follow, as developments warrant.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Giant Gap Odyssey

Just as I was trying, last week, to inspire several friends to make a Sunday odyssey into the mega-waterfall in Big Granite Canyon, I learned that another odyssey had already been planned, for that same Sunday. This other odyssey meant hiking from Green Valley west to Canyon Creek, through famed Giant Gap.

Of course the Giant Gap Odyssey took precedence, after all, it actually *had* precedence, except that misty calendar of appointments in my aged and misty mind had somehow misplaced it.

Ron Gould, his kayaking friend Steve, Catherine O'Riley, Tom McGuire, and I were to meet at 9:30 Sunday morning and blaze down the Green Valley Trail towards a blaze of incipient glory. I convinced my son Greg to abandon his GameBoy for a day and join us. Greg has been on some truly epic hikes in recent years, and it's a wonder he isn't permanently jinxed, afraid to set foot on any trail at all. Plus, his older sister is "cool" and she hates hiking. It was a near thing, but Greg joined us.

This hike of seven miles follows the Green Valley Trail, the Giant Gap Canal Trail (or HOUT), and the Canyon Creek Trail to make a semi-circumambulation of Moody Ridge. It is a rough old piece of walking with some genuine rock-climbing thrown in for good measure. Around 1900 a mining engineer of probable Dutch Flat origins (Russell Dunn) tried to interest the City of San Francisco in the North Fork American River, for its principal water supply. He had a detailed brochure printed, with an etching of the engineers' camp in Green Valley on the cover, but more importantly for the purposes of our Odyssey, he hired some men to "break grade" through Giant Gap.

A narrow but discontinuous trail, often only a foot wide, if that, resulted.

They drilled and blasted many a cliff, and stacked up many a stone, along the line of the proposed Giant Gap Canal. The Canal would drop a scant ten feet per mile, while the North Fork itself drops more than 100 feet per mile, through Giant Gap. Hence grade stood about 100 feet above the river at the west end of Green Valley, but more like 300 feet above the river near Canyon Creek.

Two tunnels were made in the worst, cliffiest part of Giant Gap, below Lovers Leap. The East Tunnel seems to have fallen but a few feet short of penetrating its narrow rock-spur or rock-blade; the West Tunnel goes all the way through its rock-blade.

In this cliffiest section, to blast a bench-cut one foot wide could mean moving a thousand tons of rock. So the men breaking grade often contented themselves with ad hoc trails dropping steeply down, and then climbing steeply back up, to the line of the Canal. Thus they would pass the impassable cliffs.

The project was abandoned. Work stopped. A century went by, and then Ron Gould and I started exploring the old canal trail in earnest. It was difficult to imagine that the thing could actually traverse Giant Gap. The cliffs are so very steep. A century of vegetative growth, punctuated by wildfires, a century of rockslides large and small, and monstrous storms washing sediment down the canyon walls, had effectively disguised very much of the--what shall we call it?--The Grade.

So by fits and starts we found it and followed it farther and farther until at last it could not be denied that some kind of trail-like thing went all the way through.

In early July 2003 Ron and I made the first complete traverse of Giant Gap on The Grade, from west to east, finishing with the over-2000' climb out of Green Valley.

This time it would be east to west, finishing with the steep, but only 1400', climb up Canyon Creek.

It was sunny and clear and warm on the south-facing serpentine slopes above Green Valley. Blue penstemon and golden mini-sunflowers and fragrant purple Mustang Mint lined the trail. In an hour we were at the river, at the very end of the west branch of the GVT. Hydraulic mines in an impressively large glacial outwash terrace were just above us, and a deep pool stretched away west towards the great promontory of Lovers Leap, to the west.

The high flows of May 19th had rearranged things there, scouring a fresh cut into a sandbar left from the January 1997 flood event, ten feet above the level of the pool, and smashing up the willows bordering the pool, bending them over and tangling driftwood in their willowy tresses. We found the shade of a White Alder and Tom and Greg stripped down and swam and played in the cold fast water.

The North Fork was crystal clear, high and fast and cold for this late in the year.

After a good long break we set off west along river right, over large boulders and around or over little serpentine bosses and spurs. The line of the Giant Gap Canal was soon above us, but impassable; the serpentine being too fractured, and too many sections of The Grade had slipped away or been buried in scree, over the last century.

After half a mile of boulder-hopping, we reached a spring close to the west edge of the Melones serpentine, where the serpentine is in faulted contact with metavolcanics of the late-Paleozoic Calaveras Complex. I think of this spring as a child of the fault zone, where the rock is, relatively speaking, more fractured, and more able to hold and convey groundwater. Here a tangle of California Grape vines and blackberry canes grow beneath the shade of White Alders.

And here in this tangle we climbed away from the river and followed a ridiculous half-trail up and up and then across steep slopes and then up and up and then across, winding in and out and back and forth, but finally rising to the sublime level of The Grade. Here, in the Calaveras Complex, it is a noble thing, a broad ledge blasted from solid rock.

Soon we reached blind and unfinished East Tunnel and took another break. There was no point in hurrying ourselves. The sun was terribly bright, and we took advantage of shade when possible. In the shade of East Tunnel we rested and snacked.

Almost so soon as we found The Grade we left it, dropping steeply a hundred feet down and then back up, regaining the level Grade and soon reaching the Big Overhang. This is like a half-tunnel carved from the cliffs. Wonderful views straight down into the sparkling river and across the canyon to the Pinnacles. Kayakers and rafters appeared and disappeared.

Continuing, we reached The Slide, a broad rock-slide and something of a water-course, where The Grade is sketched in, sketched, yes, but diminishes all too quickly: two feet wide, one foot, six inches with two-foot gaps, two inches with four-foot gaps, and then--nothing one can stand on, anyway, although traces continue. One must just forge on out there until nothing remains, and then some easy rock-climbing leads down and across the last sixty yards or so. Below, a polished plunge steepens out of view. So the climbing is easy, but the danger is extreme. Very cautiously we crossed.

Ron had the idea of bringing a rope along, and here as at several other places, various members of our party roped up and were belayed over the scary sections.

We climbed back up to another marvelous little section of The Grade, but were soon forced down, but then back up--or was it further down?--and at last we reached West Tunnel. Here a broad ledge leads along a cliff to the tunnel. The only problem is that this broad ledge has a broad gap which has unsatisfying footholds and untenable handholds. The rope came out again, and after a time we were all in the tunnel, perhaps a hundred feet in length, opening into sheer-walled Tunnel Gully on the west, and offering that tiny glimpse of Big West Spur to the west.

Another long break, and then we were faced with returning across the ledge-with-the-gap, which is a little more difficult in that direction. Once we were all across, another deep descent was required to turn the corner into Tunnel Gully itself, followed by a steep climb up the floor of the gully, and then a short climb up a vertical cliff. Again the rope came into play, and then we were on Terrace Top, west of Tunnel Gully, and with no more rock climbing of any consequence for the rest of the way.

Another long break. I should say that the incredible bloom of spring 2005 continues into the summer. We had seen very much Two-lobed Clarkia, or Brandegee's Clarkia, as this somewhat rare subspecies is called, after Katharine Brandegee, a botanist of this general area from near a century past. We had seen much of what I take to be the Royal Larkspur, often two feet tall, with deep dark blue flowers. And then there were the native onions, and the Mustang Mint, and so many other flowers; Harvest Brodiaea were quite prominent.

So we enjoyed the sight of many thousands of these flowers, scattered along The Grade. Terrace Top was especially fine with flowers.

For a ways west of Terrace Top, The Grade resumed intact, but at Lovers Leap Ravine the old trail suddenly climbs two hundred feet higher, passing a series of cliffy spurs, before dropping to Onion Point. From Onion Point to Canyon Creek there is easy going. We were all tired and plodded along, resting a little from time to time. A haze of cirrus clouds softened the sunshine, and then, as we'd planned, the sun dropped below the canyon rim and we had shade for the steep climb up and out.

The Canyon Creek Trail proved to be a wonderland of flowers, Brandegee's Clarkia growing in patches of a thousand flowers to a patch. Amazing!

We became scattered along the trail up, and Greg and Tom and I reached the Land Rover first, Catherine ten minutes after, and Ron and Steve another ten or twenty minutes after that. It was near sunset. We piled into the Rover and circled back towards Alta and our point of beginning, all well pleased with an unusually difficult hike, difficult but extremely beautiful.

I can't exaggerate the wonders of Giant Gap. This is a gorge among gorges.

It was an especially memorable and enjoyable Odyssey in the North Fork canyon.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Return to Secret Canyon and the Iowa Hill Canal

On Tuesday morning I met Catherine O'Riley and geologist/paleontologist Dave Lawler at Weimar for a visit to Secret Canyon and the Iowa Hill Canal. We crossed the North Fork on Ponderosa Way, where a tremendous bloom of Clarkia purpurea, Purple Clarkia, or Wincecup Fairyfan, is in progress along the old wagon road, as it drops into the canyon. These spectacular flowers have four pinkish or lavender petals grouped in a bowl, each with a purple spot. There is a ring of white anthers at the base of the corolla-bowl, and the four-parted stigma is a deep maroon.

We stopped to photograph these lovely flowers.

There are many species of Clarkia in California. They are in the Evening Primrose family. Recently I have been photographing another species, Clarkia arcuata, with a cream to white stigma, and dark blue anthers, near the head of the Green Valley Trail, on sunny serpentine slopes. This C. arcuata may be the flower I mistakenly identified as a Sidalcea near Giant Gap, about a month ago.

The road up the south wall of the canyon is rough and rocky. Eventually we won through and drove the twenty or so miles up the Foresthill Road to Ford Point, at about 5600' elevation. A deep blue sky was adorned with scattered fair-weather cumulus clouds, driven north by strong south winds. What would have been quite a warm day at lower elevations was markedly cool.

We took the same little road breaking east from the Ford Point road, a road marked 13-14-2 as I recall, into a logged area rich with green manzanita which scratched my little Subaru. Again the Subie managed to collect pine needles in its catalytic converter housing, and a delicate perfume of burning pine wafted about as we parked and gathered our packs. I looked beneath the car and reassured myself that nothing too significant was afoot; it would not do to set Tahoe National Forest afire.

The country rock is metasediments of the Shoo Fly Complex. The Complex is divided into four major thrust blocks, each containing various formations which have never yet been systematically mapped, except in this area, by David Harwood of the USGS. He identifies the rocks of Secret Canyon as belonging to the oldest thrust block of the Shoo Fly, the Lang sequence, and divides this Lang Sequence into formations such as the Big Valley Bluff fm., the Screwauger Breccia, etc.

At any rate, there are not very many exposures of the bedrock here, almost everything being covered by a glacial till which itself contains these same Lang sequence rocks, with few to no exotic rocks from outside the area. The till makes for rich soils which do a good job of storing the snowmelt and support much in the way of heavy timber, especially on the more northern exposures.

On a pure south slope near our parking spot, Ponderosa Pines grew. Large Sugar Pines and Douglas Fir were in the area. But across Secret Canyon to the south, on the northern exposures, these same ancient Sugar Pine and Douglas Fir are mixed with some large true fir such as White Fir and, rarely, Red Fir, with an understory of small to fairly large true fir.

We followed the road east to its end, where a short trail drops to the Secret Canyon Canal (SCC), a tributary to the Iowa Hill Canal (IHC). Suddenly all signs of logging disappeared and we all felt that this was a very special trail, almost level, winding through the forest of huge old trees. We passed the half-crushed shingled cabin and reached the "take" from Secret Canyon, where a log dam likely once diverted the creek into the SCC.

Directly across Secret Canyon and 25 feet higher is the American Hill Canal (AHC). We crossed and climbed over rocks to the old ditch, there, a wooden flume, with a surprising quantity of flume wood still visible on the ground.

It looks as though the flume, its most recent incarnation possibly dating to the 1930s, had been robbed for its lumber at some time, possibly for the cabin across the creek, and for whatever mining operations had been underway there.

At any rate, the main body of the wooden flume is gone, with parts of the floor remaining, and no signs of a fire have affected the area since the flume was built, perhaps seventy years ago.

We followed this American Hill Canal back down Secret Canyon to the west, until the first little "ditch lake" is reached, where a generous array of springs fill the old canal over a distance of over a hundred feet. We rested and ate and explored before turning back; there was only so much time, if we wished to visit the IHC.

At Beacroft we saw an SUV with a trailer and some kayaks. Soon we were at the pass, just beyond where the Beacroft Trail climbs away west, and entering a grove of White Fir, found and followed the little old road by which lumber for the giant IHC flume was hauled to the work. This part of the flume was necessary to cross the cliffy areas on both sides of Tadpole Canyon. Here, in contrast to the AHC in Secret Canyon, several wildfires had intervened since the flume's principal period of operation, in the 1870s, and only a very few fragments of almost unrecognizable flume wood remained.

However, the bench cut blasted from the cliffs makes for a very nice trail, in fact, the entire upper few miles of the IHC is shown as a trail on the 1962 TNF map of this area. It is fairly easy going and the old flume-trail offers great views into and across the North Fork canyon, here over 3000 feet deep. The big waterfall near the bottom of Big Valley Creek is still impressive.

Very much yellow-flowering Stonecrop was in bloom on the cliffs along the IHC trail, mixed with a red-purple profusion of Penstemon, possibly that species called Mountain Pride.

Tadpole Canyon creek has subsided quite a bit over recent weeks and we crossed by an easy jump and continued along on the IHC as it curved from north to east and reentered the main North Fork canyon. There the brush becomes extreme and further progress is barred. Green Manzanita, Huckleberry Oak, and Bush Chinquapin dominate. We had fine views across the North Fork to Sugar Pine Point, Cherry Point, Snow Mountain, and in the distance to the north, Castle and Basin peaks.

The Big Waterfall in Big Granite Creek is still big, and looks quite monstrous in fact. It would require quite a hike to actually visit the thing. It could be approached from above, from the Loch Leven Lakes area, but quite a bit of brush guards the entrances to Big Granite Canyon in that area.

The shadows lengthened and added considerable drama to the great and deep canyon of the North Fork American. We had a schedule to meet and had to leave a little earlier than we would have liked.

I have not seen, yet, the larger part of the Secret Canyon Canal. Maps suggest that it has been disrupted by logging and logging roads over much of its course in Little Secret Canyon. More exploration is needed. If it had been left intact, one could treat that uppermost part of the IHC, the SCC, and the AHC as one continuous trail, almost perfectly level, winding along through the main North Fork canyon, Tadpole Canyon, Little Secret Canyon, and Secret Canyon, for a distance of, say, almost ten miles.

It was a great day in and around the great canyon.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Visit to Secret Canyon

Thursday morning I met Ron Gould for a visit to Secret Canyon, a tributary of the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River.

It's really all TNF archeologist Nolan Smith's fault. He sent me a fascinating gloss from the 1879 "Report of Professor R.H. Stretch on the Iowa Hill Canal and Gravel Mines, Placer County, California," in which various tributary ditches were named, including the Secret Canyon Branch.

I will refer to the Iowa Hill Canal as the IHC, the Secret Canyon Branch as the SCB.

In a previous message I described explorations along the IHC east of the Beacroft Trail. This must be about 25 miles northeast from Foresthill. The Beacroft drops north to the North Fork American from a pass on the Foresthill Divide, at about 5500' elevation. Little Secret Canyon drops away south from this pass. Near where one parks to hike the Beacroft, a mining ditch may be seen on the east side of the pass, a ditch which mysteriously disappears into a trench.

The trench is a collapsed tunnel which led under the pass, and the ditch is the SCB.

Unfortunately, the SCB has been much damaged by logging and logging roads. It would have made a fine trail, following an almost level line south and east out of Little Secret Canyon into Secret Canyon, over a distance of three or four miles.

What Ron and I hoped was that the more easterly part of the SCB would have remained intact. So we drove on past the Beacroft to Ford Point and took the rough little road south a quarter-mile until an even rougher road broke away east. Following this, we scratched the Subie pretty well on the flanking manzanita, and drove over so many little pines sprouting from road center that their needles became engrossed within the catalytic converter and began burning. So, in a cloud of piney perfume we bumped along until the bumps became too daunting, and parked.

Dropping straight down the hillside, through a logged area where many larger trees remained, but where bulldozers had scrambled every which way, we caught sight of the SCB below us, blessedly intact, and we were very pleased to see that TNF had kept the logging bulldozers well away from the historic ditch.

Following it east, we immediately came upon a major rockslide of very recent vintage. Every trace of the canal was gone; perhaps a cliff had been rounded by a flume, originally, but it was impossible to say. A rubble of fresh scree and talus extended almost all the way down to Secret Canyon creek, a few hundred feet below us.

I'd guess this rock slide happened no earlier than January 1997. It looks awfully fresh. Or, it may have been breaking away and sliding in many episodes over recent centuries, and the most recent of these was five or so years ago.

We found an easy way to cross above the cliffy slide area, and were soon back on the canal.

It was a modest thing, perhaps four feet wide and three feet deep, tho much filled in by erosion. It had a nice berm, broad enough for easy walking, tho often overgrown.

Rounding a curve, we came upon a completely open section of the old canal. An old trail descended to the canal from the west and north.

Suddenly able to see the forest despite the trees, we found ourselves in a fairly wild part of Secret Canyon. There is heavy timber on both sides, with a scattering of huge old Sugar Pines and Douglas Fir. An understory of White Fir and Douglas Fir, along with many shrub species, more or less plainly indicates the results of fire suppression over the last century. What had once been a more open, fire-adapted forest with scattered large Sugar Pines, Ponderosa-Jeffrey Pines, and Douglas Fir, is evolving into a true fir and Douglas Fir forest.

At any rate there are some really fine old trees of a tremendous size back there in Secret Canyon.

And now the old canal was easy to follow. It was clearly a maintained trail. Where large trees had fallen across the canal, a large chainsaw had cut them away from the berm.

Had we stumbled upon a little-known TNF trail?

Following the canal, we came upon a giant Sugar Pine with a bundle of four or five fifteen-foot-long, eight-inch-diameter riveted iron pipes, of the sort used for mining penstocks a century or more ago. The pipes were lashed onto the base of the giant tree.

And then, a little ways along, we came upon a trail dropping away from the canal towards the creek, where a ramshackle shingled miner's cabin stood on a little flat.

Apparently this is or was a mining claim on TNF lands. We were very close to the "take," where the waters of Secret Canyon had been diverted into the SCB.

We could see another old ditch on the far side of Secret Canyon, about 25 feet higher than the SCB, and being curious, we crossed the creek and climbed up to it.

To our surprise there was a lot of old flume lumber along the ditch, with round nails. Round nails came into general use around 1900. It looked to me as tho this flume lumber was much younger than that, perhaps dating to the 1930s, or even later.

Ron mentioned that this ditch showed on the Duncan Peak quadrangle, and led out of Secret Canyon south to the American Hill Mine. Later I saw that it also shows on the current TNF map, as tho it were an active ditch, drawn as a solid blue line with little arrows along it, pointing downstream.

Both the SCB and this ditch are a little below the 5600-foot contour, there in Secret Canyon.

We followed it about a mile to the west and south, crossing some springy areas where the ditch was flooded into narrow lakelets, and Pacific Dogwoods were still in bloom.

Eventually this American Hill Canal (AHC) turned around the end of a spur ridge, where we again saw signs of logging and roads and skid trails. We went on to the next little ravine, noticing that brush had become more and more of a factor, before retreating.

The ruffled cloudy skies of the early morning had lowered into a featureless gray, from which raindrops began to fall, at rare intervals. The wind had gradually increased and we heard its song and saw groves of conifers bending beneath it. It was just as well to have started back.

When we had crossed Secret Canyon again, and regained the SCB, and passed the broken shingled cabin, and crossed the wonderfully open section, we took a chance on that old trail we had seen.

Over a short distance, it climbed to the very end of a road. Following that road west a few hundred yards, we came upon the Subie. Just as we reached it, a more real rain began to fall.

We had seen signs of recent grading on the Foresthill Road, so we hung a right at Ford Point to see if they had plowed the snow off Canada Hill.

Indeed they had. And there, at 6600 feet, it was not just rain, but snow, blowing in the wind. We drove on up to Sailor Flat and found the Sailor Flat road still blocked by snow, but the main road seemingly open all the way up to Robinson Flat.

Then it only remained to make the long drive back. It had been an interesting day in Secret Canyon, following portions of two mining ditches which make, as it were, one continuous trail.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Visit to New York Canyon

For various reasons I'd put off visiting the 500-foot waterfalls in New York Canyon until too late in the spring to see them at high flows, but, better late than never.

Still, I can't help but feel irritated that my religiously and often-reiterated Grand Plan, the plan for my hiking buddies to spend their money to rent snowmobiles, so I could ride in all the comfort of a king up to Sailor Flat Trail, and then down it, so ever far as possible, never came to fruition.

Despite months of trying!

At any rate, good old Tom McGuire, who lives in Berkeley and hikes and bikes every which way--California, Utah, all over the place--good old Tom had the brilliant idea to visit New York canyon on Sunday, June 12th, and we simply made it happen. We met early at the Raley's in Auburn, stashed my Subie in the parking lot, and drove Tom's shiny mini-SUV up Foresthill Road to where the snow stopped us, on Canada Hill, elevation, 6600'.

Ron & Catherine and I had been there a few days before; nothing had changed, and I fully expected to walk a couple miles over snow before we would have dropped low enough on the Sailor Flat Trail to get clear of the stuff.

Tom, by the way, is a tall man, well-built, with brown hair in a short pony-tail and a quick smile, an artist and writer and adventurer who somehow lives in the very Hive of Civilization and works in an office for the University.

I always accuse him of being Politically Correct. He might as well accuse me of being a hiker. But he does pronounce manzanita "monzoneetah," in complete disregard for the old-time white-Californian purposeful slur on the Hispanic component of our history, the slur which makes an almost nasal "a" out of almost every Spanish "ah."

So that we now always say Sack-ramento, not Sock-ramento.

Oh well. Many were the 49ers from Pike County, Missouri.

A large party of hikers and runners were gathering themselves for a charge to Robinson Flat, a few miles up the road, and Tom and I quietly marveled that, sturdy and adventurous as they were, they had no clue that a scant two miles away, one of the largest waterfalls in California was spawning rainbows in clouds of spray. We almost had to tell them. But, it is a secret.

Perhaps better for them not to know. I have a feeling that those shapely legs, so artfully exposed, so carefully shaved, were never meant to crash the brushfields of New York Canyon. Permanent scarring would be the certain outcome.

They swiftly disappeared over the snow and Tom and I trudged along after. To my surprise, after passing the first big patch, the road opened up, and except for a minor snowfield at Sailor Flat, and another down the Sailor Flat Road where we'd abandoned Catherine's Land Rover last June, in a fit of prudence, we were able to just plain walk on the road.

We passed the first high hump on Canada Hill and soon reached the second high hump.

"This is where the dividing ridge between the East and West Forks of New York Canyon meets Canada Hill," I explained to Tom, who appeared quizzical and confused. "We could follow this ridge right down to the Chert Dome, and save ourselves at least a mile, if we were brave."

To Tom this was a mysterious and inconceivable idea. I let it drop and we strode along to Sailor Flat, crunched over a hundred yards of snow, and set off down the road towards the North Fork.

Sailor Flat itself is a wet meadow at the head of the road, on the north side of the Foresthill Divide. The name likely harks back to the Gold Rush and a group of sailors who were prospecting the area, or who perhaps had a camp down on the North Fork itself. Similarly, New York Canyon would have been named for a party of 49ers from New York.

A sign informed us that the Sailor Flat Jeep Trail was one and one-half miles in, the North Fork, four miles. It's a ways over three thousand feet descent to the river from that sign. Most but not all people use a 4WD of some kind to drive down to the end of the jeep trail, which is a mite less than 2000' above the river.

The road and jeep trail follow down the ridge dividing New York Canyon on the west from Sailor Canyon on the east.

About a mile down the Sailor Flat road one breaks out of the Red Fir forest into an open brushy area. Here I had noted, on my special Forest Service edition of the Duncan Peak 7.5 minute quadrangle, that a smaller road forking away east at this brushy area was "the" Sailor Flat Trail. So I talked Tom into giving it a try, as it had looked, on the map, to save some distance over the present main road.

It dropped steeply and straightly down to the beginning of the Jeep Trail, and was, in fact, clearly the very same trail, although somewhat disrupted by recent logging in the area.

The jeep trail continues steep and we made quick work of dropping down to a level area where our secret route to the falls forks away left. This route is so terribly secret that I myself can't remember its course from one visit to the next. We blundered through some heavy timber into a Kellogg's Black Oak forest and gradually gradually found ourselves on a major game trail. After a time a little flat, well-covered in Green Manzanita, is reached. One merely has to drop away west into a ravine of sorts, and find the almost invisible human trail which crosses this ravine to a mining prospect, a conical pit about six feet deep and twelve feet across.

If one cannot find this pit, it is best to give up on reaching the falls. There is what Saddam Hussein might call the Mother of All Brushfields between the ravine and a line of cliffs to the west. The crossing of this brushfield is the crux. From the prospect pit, it can be done. Anywhere else, watch out.

We dropped away a little too vigorously and wasted fifteen or twenty minutes looking too far down the ravine for the prospect-pit crossing. Last year I had looked too high, this year, too low. Finally we had to tough it out and climb and climb and climb until at last the proper crossing was found.

Along the way we found another old human trail, crossing the ravine lower down. It, however, was swiftly swallowed by the Mother of All Brushfields.

We thrashed on across to the cliffs, where a nice little ramp leads up out of the brush to a rocky flat, where we rested, snapped some photos, and then continued on a wildly rambling path down, and back and forth, and through some woods, and up, and finally out onto open rocky slopes dotted with hundreds of Mariposa Tulips, much Stonecrop, and much Sierra Pride penstemon, in full bloom. The East Fork was a couple hundred yards below us, and we could look across the dividing ridge to the west side of the West Fork. The Chert Dome was below, almost out of sight.

The East Fork was flowing along merrily but modestly; it was indeed weeks late to see the falls at anything like high flows. We rested again. It was near noon and the sun was very bright and shade was very welcome. We were a couple hundred yards above the top of the big waterfall, at an easy crossing point which gives onto a bear trail most convenient for a cliffy traverse to Chert Dome.

The whole area is threaded by bear trails, and you will sometimes see, in mossy ground, semi-permanent bear tracks, little hollows pressed into the moss over a period of years; for bears seem much given to stepping in the exact same spots, again and again and again.

Add to this that their hind feet land exactly on the spots just vacated by their front feet, and you see how a bear trail can often show very deep footprints, little almost circular shallow hollows, six inches across.

Having rested and dined, Tom jumped and I forded the crystalline stream, and a short climb in hot sun brought us out onto steep cliffs, where, as usual, I lost the almost-invisible optimal path, and we ended up doing a bit of a scramble up the steeps to gain the thing, which led us to a roughly 500-foot descent to Chert Dome.

Most of the area is cut into the Shoo Fly Complex metasediments, here more deformed and twisted than is usual, with quite a bit of thrust faulting and folding and the abrupt juxtaposition of different formations. Masses of grey and white chert are common. One of these, low on the divide between the East and West forks of New York Canyon, forms Chert Dome, at about 4400' elevation.

We hewed to cliff-edge on our way down and were rewarded by a series of different views of main falls. The East Fork approaches a sheer cliff in a narrow gorge and then plunges in wispy rainbowed spray hundreds of feet. Depending on whether you add some upper and lower falls to the tally or not, this waterfall is called 500 feet or 640 feet high.

As we neared the little pass before Chert Dome I spotted some long-trodden bear footprints in moss and we followed them out to a clifftop perch with an exceptionally fine view of the awesome waterfall. I often see these bear trails leading out to cliffy perches with exceptional views.

Tom marveled at the deep bear prints, but, Tom marvels at everything.

Soon we were at our destination, Chert Dome, and took shelter beneath a tiny Canyon Live Oak clinging to the summit, scarcely four feet high but overhanging some rock ledges in just such a way that we could rest in the shade. Otherwise we would have really cooked in that bright sunshine.

We had an unobstructed view of the very amazing and beautiful waterfalls from comfortable rock chairs in the shade.

With a climb of 2200 feet ahead of us, up to the Foresthill Road, I began wondering about the Dividing Ridge again. It would have to save us a mile, maybe a mile and a half. The climb would be no different, elevation-wise. The only question was, how bad would the brush really be? For in the course of about ten visits to New York Canyon I have come to respect and fear the many brushfields. There have been times in which I put myself way, way out into one, and thought, "Oh well, it's terrible, but only a couple hundred yards to go, and it won't, at least, get any worse!"

And then it does get worse. Much worse. But once in the middle of one of those nightmare patches, it is hard to wave the white flag and sound a retreat.

Well. I ran the Dividing Ridge idea past Tom, and although he seemed reluctant, trooper that he is, he agreed to a try.

He marveled that I would even consider such a thing.

We followed back up the same cliff-edge route we'd just followed down, and then contrived to climb steeply to the crest of the Divide, and follow the crest itself on up. We noticed that a bear trail also followed the crest, in places quite well-defined, and marked with scat of the spring fashion, all black and grassy. A climb of several hundred feet brought us to a certain pass on the ridge I had visited a couple years ago, with Gus Wiseman. Some giant Sugar Pines grow there, and suddenly the ridge crest rises very steeply above, in cliffs.

We rested in the forest shade and I scouted the pass for a bear trail leading to the east face of the cliffs above. I knew from my last visit that on the west of this pass, the brush was extreme. And we had seen that east face from below; steep, but passable, we had guessed.

Soon enough a bear trail of the highest order was found. By this I mean a trail one might mistake for an old human trail. It had a distinct and broad trail-bed and wound up through brush towards that exact eastern area we had deemed passable. It could not be seen unless one was actually on it, with all the Huckleberry Oak.

Following it, we broke out into rocks and the trail became, if possible, even better-defined.

Tom, a word-smith, dubbed it the Ursine Trail. We followed it up and up and up, past one terrace-like summit to the next steep and cliffy rise to the next little summit, and so on. Occasionally we may have lost this wonderful Ursine Trail, as we had a couple of out-and-out rock climbs, where a bear would have taken a more sensible line.

After a climb from the Chert Dome of over 1500 feet, we reached a large step or broad pass on the crest of the ridge, hundreds of yards long, and near level, but filled with Green Manzanita and Huckleberry Oak.

Exactly what we had feared.

The Ursine Trail seemed to split into multiple lines which entered the heavy brush at many points, not one of which looked at all good.

After a long reconnaissance of the area, east and west, hoping for a long way around of some kind, we gave up and entered the sea of tangled stiff branches. Here we could often only walk on top of the brush. Towards the southern end we reached signs of logging from twenty years ago, and found a road which wound up on the eastern side of things. Another road stayed more west, and as it offered the more direct line, we followed it over snow until it ended and then zig-zagged up through fir forest and snow to the crest, on the next step higher.

From there it was easy going, although we were again and again deceived into thinking we had topped out and finally made an end to that endless climb from Chert Dome. The snowfields became larger and larger and at long last we reached the Foresthill Road.

Tom marveled at this, apparently never having really trusted my "theory" that one single ridge leads from the Chert Dome up to Canada Hill. Since he has been on two hikes into New York Canyon with me now, on both of which I managed to lose the way and have trouble finding that damn Prospect Pit crossing of the Nameless Ravine and the Mother of All Brushfields, I suppose he can be forgiven for doubting my theories of route.

We were not much more than a quarter-mile from his shiny little SUV and soon reached it, to find the earlier party of the shapely shaven legs gone, and one kindly-looking man resting on the tailgate of his SUV, reading a book.

It proved he was waiting for his wife and others, who had set out that morning from Squaw Valley for a run over the upper 30 miles of the Western States Trail. It was now a little after five in the afternoon. I had a feeling of foreboding that his wife and the rest might have had considerable difficulty, and that the kindly bookish man would have along wait, maybe past sunset, before they'd arrive.

Tom and I settled into the comfortable seats for the long drive down to Auburn. He marveled at how good it felt to get off his feet. It had been a long and wonderful day in New York Canyon. The Ursine Trail would be my own route of choice to hike down to the big waterfall from Canada Hill, if only there was a way around that one brushfield.

More exploration is needed, as usual. The best things in life are free, but not always easy.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Tadpole Point

Thursday morning the rain slacked off and the sun peeked through, so it was deemed time to drive up the Foresthill Road and, by hook or by crook, hike north to the cliffs above the Point of Beginning, or Point of Ending, of the Iowa Hill Canal. I do not know how to name these cliffs. They are on the divide between Tadpole Canyon, on the west, and New York Canyon, on the east, and stand a little over 3000 feet above the North Fork.

Tadpole Point?

Ron and Catherine & I met and made the twisting odyssey across the North Fork on Ponderosa Road. Turning left, we followed up the Foresthill Divide past the Beacroft Trail and Ford Point to where snow still blocks the road, just shy of Canada Hill, at around 6400' elevation. We put on gaiters and packs and tromped off over patchy snow to the north, following a road which only occasionally could be seen. We were hugging the west rim of New York Canyon.

Our long drive upcountry had carried us out of the sunshine into clouds and light rain showers. To the east we could see the Royal Gorge and Wabena Point, appearing and disappearing amid swirling fog, with shafts of sunlight lighting up a patch of cliff or forest here and there. Only the lower one or two thousand feet of Snow Mountain was visible, below the cloud-deck. Everything pointed to continued clearing, more and more sunshine, and less and less clouds.

At times we walked through pure stands of Red Fir, with bright yellow-green Staghorn Lichen coating their trunks down to about six or ten feet above the ground; this would seem to be the average depth of the snow-pack, in such groves. Perhaps the lower parts of their trunks are subjected to scouring by wind-blown snow, and the lichen can't stand up to the punishment.

At other times we ranged closer to the steeps of New York Canyon, where brush and Sugar and Jeffrey pines were more dominant.

We began to see thin fog gathering over the little snowfields in the deep woods; wherever some shelter from wind allowed time for the moist air-mass to be chilled by the snow, it was plunged below the dew point and began condensing into fog.

So there was fog and cloud above, below, and all around us. The snow made for easy walking, being dense and fairly firm. There was much dirt and pollen and woody debris and the red bloom of algae on the snowfields.

A hike of about two miles brought us to the cliffs. We were in the Barney Cavanaugh Ridge Formation of the early-Paleozoic Shoo Fly Complex metasediments. Here the North Fork glacier was rather more than 3000 feet deep, and there were some nice exposures of glaciated slate and sandstone and chert.

The USGS's David Harwood mapped this area in 1993. He defined and described the Barney Cavanaugh Ridge Formation as follows:

"Devonian? to Ordivician?--Purple, green and gray slate interbedded with white-weathering, greenish-gray, parallel- and cross-laminated, fine-grained, quartz sandstone and quartz-rich siltstone; contains chaotic zones as thick as several hundred meters of disrupted quartz sandstone and siltstone in purple slate matrix; large blocks of gray ribbon chert, quartzite, and quartz-granule conglomerate occur in chaotic zones. Maximum thickness 500 meters."

At the cliffs, we were immediately amazed by the appearance of the big waterfall in lower Big Valley Canyon; from this new vantage we could see the top of the falls, but not the bottom, and tho difficult to estimate, I would not be surprised were it to measure 150 feet in height, maybe a little more.

This waterfall has to rank along with the biggest and best in all the North Fork.

But perhaps more startling were the other falls which came into view on the west wall of Big Valley, farther up its canyon. There was one thin stripe of whitewater which must have been hundreds of feet high. And higher, in the west fork of Big Valley, we saw another large waterfall, spreading fan-like over a steep cliff. The upper 500 feet of 3500-foot Big Valley Bluff was hidden in clouds.

Fog and clouds boiled everywhere. The river was visible directly below us, and here and there down the canyon streaks of silver showed it again and again. Away west the sun was shining. It was a spectacle of great beauty, constantly changing. Some 600 feet below, at the base of these cliffs, we could see little patches of the Iowa Hill Canal. We climbed out onto narrow rocky points, wet and slippery with their mosses and lichens. The chartreuse rock lichen was much in evidence. And while roaming east along the cliff-tops, we found some old gold mines, where quartz veins had been stoped out at the surface, in one place leaving a strange channel, cut twenty feet deep and four to six feet wide, in the gray ribbon chert.

To my dismay, roads had been cut down to these cliff-tops at several places. Checking my 1976 map of the North Fork American Roadless Area, I saw that the line had been drawn right at the cliff-tops; so the roads likely date back to the 1960s. They ought to be permanently closed well above the cliffs.

I had hoped that we could work our way east to a view of the New York Canyon 500-foot waterfall, but while at the Tadpole Point cliffs, a ray of sunshine hit the brushfields below and west, where we had been stopped a week ago, walking east on the Iowa Hill Canal from Beacroft Pass. Fog instantly boiled up and wafted past us. Charming! Mystic!

But it grew thicker and thicker until we were utterly encased and could scarcely see a hundred yards. Some invisible metereological boundary had been crossed, and rather than lifting and clearing, the clouds lowered, it began raining lightly, and our canyon views were almost lost completely.

So, although we did work along farther east, we were not as inspired as we might have been, and thought perhaps a bit more of the warmth of the car, than of crashing down the unknown brushfields in search of some presumed gap which would allow a view of the NYC falls. We were within a quarter-mile of what would have been The Spot, so far as I could read the Duncan Peak quadrangle, a spot near the center of Section 33; but we were all a little wet and a little cold and had a good two miles ahead of us, to get back to the car.

So in a fit of prudence we turned south and soon struck one of the pesky roads. This we followed higher and higher over deeper and deeper snow. At a certain point we found a Jeep Wagoneer which had been abandoned last fall. It had slid off the road, perhaps in a bit of snow. All kinds of gear was inside. The back window was broken out. Despite this, everything inside looked fairly dry and intact. Soon, I think, a bear will take care of that little anomaly.

Following the road, it eventually proved to be the Wrong Way, so we struck up through the Red Fir forest a few hundred yards east and hit our smaller road of our ingress, a few hours earlier. We were near a series of clearcuts on Tahoe National Forest lands which drape below the canyon rim of the main western tributary to the West Fork of New York Canyon. These clearcuts look fairly old--twenty years?--but show close to zero regeneration.

I would like to see a complete end to such clearcuts, and, again, a motorized vehicle closure enacted on the lower, more northern parts of the various roads which approach the Tadpole Point cliffs.

I don't want to put too fine a point on it: these cliffs form one of the greatest of all the amazing scenic overlooks in the North Fork canyon.

We slogged along over snow for a good while and reached the car about eight p.m., and were soon fogging up the windows with our wet clothes, and slowly zooming southwest. We stopped at Ford Point to drive down the ridge for a look at the Secret Canyon ditch, a tributary to the Iowa Hill Canal. We found that a logging road had been cut directly into the line of the ditch. There seemed to be some prospect that the ditch continued intact, going up Secret Canyon, but more exploration is needed.

All these old mining ditches were used as trails in the olden days; they often were critical parts of the whole complex of trails. So soon as they fell out of use, and wildfires consumed the wooden flumes which once spanned cliffy sections and small gorges, their use as trails was much reduced.

It seems obvious to me that many of these old mining ditches could once again become foot trails. Could, and should. Whether the berms could tolerate equestrian or mountain-bike use would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

While in the Ford Point area we were treated to a glory of reds and golds and pinks as the sun set into swirling clouds and fog. It was totally awesome.

Such was another visit to the great canyon, or as it was often named in the 19th century, The Great American Canyon.

Monday, June 6, 2005

Skiing in the Sierra, 1866

This article from an 1868 issue of (East Coast) Putnam's Magazine may be of interest. A few notes in preface: "Fremont's Peak" is that which we now name Basin Peak, immediately north of Castle Peak. Fremont and Kit Carson came though here in the fall of 1845. Meadow Lake is a few miles north of I-80, best reached from farther north yet on the Henness Pass road. It is probably still snow-bound. Prospect Mountain is that unnamed peak between Meadow Lake and French Lake. The article describes skiing, away back when, in this part of the Sierra.

The author's mistaken notions about the Donner Party are a little puzzling. Of course they came across a few years before 1849. He implies they were lured by gold; that was not the case. Other bits and pieces of poetic license are not worth notice. It is a neat little essay.

*******

Putnam's Magazine, 1868, pp. 360-364
J.H. Tredwell

The Pathway of a Great Enterprise

Early in the month of June, 1866, near the termination of a dreary and trying winter's sojourn, the writer of this article stood in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, on the route which was soon to be traversed by that great connecting chain of the two oceans-the Pacific Railroad. As yet there was no vestige of civilization observable, except here and there a few cross-sticks nailed together, to mark the "Dutch Flat wagon-road;" not a stone was turned nor a tree hewn for the purpose of forwarding the great work. I had come to a halt, after some fifteen miles of snow-shoe travel in a fierce, driving snow-storm. As I halted, the storm ceased, and the sun came out warm, bright, and refreshing, while from the great deep valleys about me rolled out the heavy clouds, revealing some of Nature's grandest handiwork, and opening out, as the misty curtain melted away, some of the sublime scenery of our own land which can only be found in the far Western borders. After a deal of surmising as to my precise locality, I found myself close at the foot of Red Mountain. Before me lay the yawning valley, to which I had just descended, hemmed in on either side by its thousands of feet of solid mountain-wall, whose ragged sides frowned darkly upon the little brook which struggled its way among the rocks and snow at their feet. Peering up in the distance, their snowy tops shining in the clear spring sunlight, stood, like two grand sentinels, Fremont's Peak and Castle Mountain, their steep sides mottled here and there with clumps of pine trees, like black patches on their surface. Over ten thousand feet these two magnificent peaks urged their heads toward heaven; and here, in this very valley, might be placed our boasted White Mountains of New England, and their presence would be as that of cobbles among great boulders. Mount Washington itself would scarcely fill one of these great valleys.

The point at which I then stood was about six thousand five hundred feet above the level of the sea, or seven hundred feet below the highest point to be reached by the railroad.

To gain some idea of the magnitude of this but partially known mountain-range, let us return to the point from which I set out-a place where for four dismal, homely months I had taken up my habitation-and there take a most extended and thorough observation; for in this stronghold of Nature there is much to be seen, and it seems as though all grandeur were here congregated.

With this intention we will take our position on the ledge of rocks which crowns Prospect Mountain-located in latitude 39รป 30' north, and about twenty miles to the westward of the heart of the Sierra.

We are now twelve miles from the nearest point of the railroad route-which lies to the south of us-but still have an extended view of the portion which it traverses, our elevation being nearly nine thousand feet above the sea-level. Looking southward, we see a grand conglomeration of small and great summits, whose bald tops tire the eye with their brilliant snowy whiteness. To the left stands out boldly Donner Peak, memorable in the history of these mountains as being the sad winter-home of those from whom it derives it name. At its foot rests one of the most beautiful of lakes, the shores of which are now associated with a tragic tale, almost too horrible for belief. In the winter of 1849 [sic], the Donner family, led thither by the tempting reports of fabulous fortunes to be won by little labor, encamped by the lake, and were there snow-bound by one of the fierce storms which frequent the region.

In a country of which they knew nothing, with a scanty supply of food, and no means by which they might obtain more, besides the prospect of a long and tedious winter, their situation was far from encouraging, and the tempting fortune, in full view before them, turned to a dreary, blank uncertainty.

There was no possibility of escape. The soft snow lay many feet deep, and was many miles in extent between them and their sunny land of promise. Day by day they saw their stock diminish, until at last there was nothing left; even the faithful beast, who had brought them this far on their journey, had gone to sustain the lives of those who remained. When hunger commenced its fearful cravings, and the hope of relief had entirely faded out, the youngest child, by mutual consent f the parents, was rudely torn from its mother's breast, and given up, a bloody horrible sacrifice to the fiendish hunger of the survivors. Want drove them to madness, and madness to desperation. Of the whole family-four in number, if I recall rightly-only one came forth alive from that fatal encampment. One after another they fell victims to the dread enemy, each time the stronger overpowering the weaker, until the last remaining one trod over the bones of his own murdered family.

For only a few weeks in midsummer is the lake free from ice. Then it is the sportsman's paradise; and Donner Lake trout are counted among the delicacies which the mountaineer's table affords, while the pretty California quail, pine-martens, and occasionally a shuffling grizzly, resort to its banks to quench their thirst or bathe in its cool waters. It will take first rank among the grandest and most attractive spots in the world; stark, rugged mountains enclose it and are reflected in its extraordinarily glassy surface, while the giant pines on its shores fringe it through the long winter with unfailing green.

To-day its natural beauties remain undisturbed; to-morrow its ages of solitude will be broken by the echoing howl of the locomotive whistle, as it hurries its onward way toward either ocean.

A little more to the left we see Castle Peak-which we have before noticed-crowned by turreted rocks, which, viewed from the distance, resemble a ruined castle, with its towers, battlements, and ivy-grown windows.

Upon this mountain, in the autumn of 1861, a hardy mountaineer and trapper-Harry Hartley by name-built himself a cabin wherein to winter and follow his adventurous occupation. Previous to Hartley's advent few, if any, white men had set foot upon this desolate spot; indeed, there was little to attract them to such a desolate place; but Hartley was of a solitary disposition: years of self-sacrifice had inured him to almost any deprivation. From a counting-house in the Empire City he had hurried away in search of that greatest boon of human life-good health; and the object of his search had become swallowed up, but not lost, in his ambition as a path-breaker for civilization. There is a peculiar fascination in pioneer life. It enslaves some men; not that they love it so well, but because of the perfect freedom which it grants to them-a freedom which can be found in no other occupation.

To be a pioneer in the Sierra Nevada is no menial service, nor is it without attendance of professional dignity, for it calls into play all the nobler instincts of true manliness. With energy, and patience, and confidence, the pioneer must be a man of nerve and decision, else his long and tedious labor will prove fruitless. Almost all pioneers possess strongly-developed reasoning powers; their mode of life renders logical conclusions almost imperative, and the care with which this faculty is exercised is particularly noticeable when they are journeying in rough, unknown places. In small things as well as great they carefully study cause and effect, where others would dash forward without a thought.

Hartley possess these endowments in a remarkable degree; and they ultimately proved his success. Fifteen lonely and unfrequented miles lay in one billowy and desolate stretch between his cabin and the nearest habitation of white men-impassable miles, withal; but in that lonely cabin he lived for four long months without seeing the face of a human being or holding converse with any one. This is but one of the many deprivations of frontier-life. It requires a stout heart to take that one step which carries a man beyond the assistance and association of his fellow-beings, and that, too, when the reward is comparatively small. Yet, this patient labor is, to the world at large, of inestimable value, for its hews the way for far more important projects which will surely follow.

Hartley, during his stay on Castle Mountain, discovered, on one of the valleys, several valuable gold-bearing quartz veins. Knowing their value, he claimed them, and five years later-in 1866-within sight of his isolated cabin, there sprung up the town of Meadow Lake; and his solitary four months in the Sierra paid him with a life-long competence.

Side by side with Castle Peak stands its compeer, Fremont's Peak, urging its proud, treeless top far among the clouds. Through all the balmy Sierra summer they bear aloft the relic of departed winter, and while the grass is rich and green in the deep-sheltered valleys which surround them, the snow flurries and wreaths about their tops, bidding defiance to the sunlight and awaiting another season of storms.

Looking to the north, the rugged mountains, with their pine-forests, again confront us-unnamed, unknown, vast recesses, which have never been explored by civilized eyes-broad arenas, where civilized man has never set foot; all waiting for the time when their centuries of silence shall be disturbed by the activity of a fast-advancing and busy population.

At last we turn our eyes to the west; and here our sight sweeps the mighty plain of the Sacramento, with its continuation to the south, the San Joaquin-so far off and far below us that objects are undiscernible. We are surrounded by snow, but in the valley upon which we look the golden grain and rich green grass flourish beneath the sun of early summer. With scarcely more than a leap we are transported from icy mid-winter to strawberries and cream.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys lie in a great bowl, as it were; for, if we urge our sight off in the distance, we find a distinct blue line, crowned with white, against the horizon, and losing itself on either hand. This is the coast-range, situated more than one hundred miles from the spot on which we stand, the snow still crowning their tops, though they be but playthings in comparison with the Sierra. Here our range of vision extends over a section of country exceeding in area the whole State of Connecticut. Of course, we cannot distinguish the fields and houses, but we can see the steamboat-smoke on the Sacramento River-some seventy miles away-and dark patches over the surface of the plain, which mark either the wooded or the tilled lands.

It is indeed a wonderful sight. The eye at a glance sweeps over one of the largest and most fertile valleys of our whole land, and a journey from our stand-point to the extreme limit of our observation would cost us at least thirty-six hours of travel.

As we stand, facing towards the west, a stone tossed from the hand will fall a distance of fifteen hundred feet, striking upon the ice-covered, snow-bound bosom of French Lake, which, in the course of a month or so from this time, will be transformed to a placid, dark, picturesque sheet of water some twenty acres in extent. The mountains seem to have split apart and formed the crevice in which it rests, for is other side is backed up by a correspondingly precipitous mountain-face.

We have taken a fair view of the country, as seen from Prospect Peak-a place which, I doubt not, will, in years to come, become famous as one of the sublimest points of observation which the world affords. From Meadow Lake, which lies a little to the eastward, the ascent is comparatively easy, and after reaching its top the traveller forgets his fatigue, and is lost in the grand scene before him.

* * * * *

Mounting our snow-shoes, a few moments of very rapid sliding brings us within the limits of the town of Meadow Lake.

This town, in point of elevation, ranks third or fourth among the permanent habitations of man in the known world. It rests on a sheltered plain, which caps a high ridge, and is surrounded by rolling hills on every side; its buildings are those rudely-fashioned structures which one so often meets with in these mountains-crazy affairs, whose thin boards prove scarcely a sufficient protection against the severe storms which assail them.

It may not be out of place here to mention the fact that during the long winters which prevail in this section, the chief and only method of locomotion, for pedestrians, is by snow-shoes; and as neither horses nor mules can be used, owing to the depth of the snow, all journeys in the unfrequented districts must be accomplished with their aid.

The unwieldy raw-hide network, known as the "Canadian shoe," is seldom used, the Norwegian pattern having proved more acceptable and less cumbersome. The latter are very simple in their construction, consisting of two long, narrow, and flat strips of wood slightly curved at the forwards ends, and confined to the feet by strips of leather, which are placed at their balancing point, and pass over the instep. The traveller is not to fatigue himself by raising them, but simply slides along over the surface of the snow. The shoes vary in length from nine to twelve feet, the longer shoes being preferable for swift running. The wearer must necessarily become skilled in their use before venturing into difficult or dangerous places, for the speed attained in descending the steep mountain-sides is fearful. In such places I have seen the measured mile accomplished in fifty seconds, and have myself slid, repeatedly, one mile in less than seventy seconds.

Snow-shoe racing is a favorite pastime among the mountain-people, both sexes participating in the sport, and many of the women challenging the best and most expert runners.* With their snow-shoes thoroughly "doped," the crowd resort to some suitable place for the contest, which begins with a grand dash, all participating. Woe to the inexperienced ones, for they are generally left sitting in the snow while they see their shoes shooting away in the exciting race, riderless, or else, owing to their uncertain footing, they are shot, arrow-like, head-first into the soft snow, from which they must extricate themselves and spend the rest of the day in hunting up their untrustworthy conveyance. Experts dash on regardless of circumstances, with the swiftness of the wind, until they come to a halt in the deep valley to which they have descended, which may be two or three miles from their starting-point.

The rider stands erect on the shoes, allowing them to slide, or rather plunge, in the direction intended, at the same time steadying himself with the stout snow-pole, which he grasps in his hands. The only mode by which he can retard his swift progress is by falling from the shoes, at the risk of a roll in the snow, and detaining them as he falls-a feat which requires some dexterity. To lose the shoes is a serious matter, for fatigue, exhaustion, and perhaps more serious mishaps, may overtake him ere he reaches his journey's end.

All through the long winter-season the snow upon the Sierra Nevada, at any elevation above five thousand feet, lies at a depth averaging from ten to twenty feet, while drifts pile themselves up to enormous and incredible proportions. Snow-slides are frequent, and vast areas of snow sometimes move down the mountain-sides, wrecking every thing in their way, and often proving fatal to the unfortunate living beings whom it may overtake. Scarcely a year passes that does not record a number of deaths from this cause.

I have seen the waters of Phoenix Lake rise six feet, and then rapidly subside, when one of these vast bodies of snow has plunged into it from the steep sides of Old-Man Mountain.

During the month of March, 1866, there was a snow-storm in the Sierra of seventeen days' duration. Day after day, for a week, I shovelled the snow from my doorway, in the vain hope that the storm would soon cease. When it did cease my cabin-the extreme height of which was twelve feet-was entirely covered with snow, in such a way that I was obliged to cut a hole in the roof, and shovel a passage through in order to obtain light, air, and an entrance-way.

The mountains were visited by a still severer storm in February, 1867. One of the county-papers, in speaking of it, stated: "The snow in some places lies thirty feet deep, and a two-story house on the Plaza of Meadow Lake is entirely out of sight. The average depth of the snow is twenty-one feet, and drifts form to a depth of twenty feet in a single night." This storm continued for thirty days.

The atmosphere of the mountains is dry, and seldom intensely cold, but the winters are very long, commencing in the latter part of November, and fairly terminating about the first of July. Be it in any season, I know of no climate so eminently calculated to benefit sufferers from bronchial or pulmonary difficulties; and of all climates which I have had the good fortune to visit, I know of none more beautiful than the Sierra Nevada spring and summer. In the former season, though the ground be covered with snow, the sun is warm and invigorating, while the great pine wilderness echoes with countless bird-songs.

Right through this temple of Nature, this region of grandeur and snow, the great enterprise pushes itself for a distance of sixty miles or more; now plunging into a ravine, shadowed and darkened by the rocky heaps which rise thousands of feet above it, now stretching off on the open plain, and guarded on either side by huge, gaunt pines, which stand stiff and listless by the way.

Lounging upon the steps of the rudely-finished but comfortable house known as Polley's Station, at Crystal Lake, we can hear the clear, ringing sound of hammer and drill; now and then a thundering blast rolls away, echoing up and down the great valleys. This is the steady, onward march of civilization, breaking the pathway through forests, and mountains, and solid granite, for the most magnificent enterprise which has prompted mankind for centuries past-the Pacific Railroad.



*I have known a party of ladies to start out in the morning, on their snow-shoes, travel eight miles to visit and spend the night with their friends, and return the following day.
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Thursday, June 2, 2005

Return to the Iowa Hill Canal

Wednesday I met Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley for a return to the head of the Beacroft Trail and the Iowa Hill Canal (IHC). The long drive up Foresthill Road eventually led us past Mumford Bar Trail a few miles to the Beacroft. A side road leads in to a parking area. Here one can see the Secret Canyon Branch of the IHC twenty or thirty feet higher in elevation, to the east.

At 5400' elevation, the forest is a mixture of Ponderosa and Sugar Pines, Douglas Fir, and both White Fir and more rarely, Red Fir. There is a scattering of Kellogg's Black Oak and Pacific Dogwood. Small patches of snow persisted here and there. A few puffy white cumulus clouds dotted the sky; a perfect spring day.

A rocky roadlet leads away north towards a pass. The Beacroft is signed (again; the sign was gone a couple years back) and forks away west, climbing out of sight--a strange course for a trail to follow, since its entire raison d'etre is to go down and down and down and down. The rocky roadlet, however, continues north into the pass, and one can see where the Secret Canyon Branch entered the tunnel beneath this pass. The tunnel is now collapsed. It is quite short, perhaps as little as 200 feet, and debouched into a short continuation of the Secret Canyon Branch just north of the pass. The Beacroft Trail crosses this ditch.

The whole situation there is confused, since as it happens the Iowa Hill Canal itself is not continuous in that area, where it seems to have been a wooden flume atop a trestle. The topographic map (7.5 minute Duncan Peak quadrangle), perversely, shows the IHC in that area, where it does not exist as a ditch, but does not show the Secret Canyon Branch, which does exist as a ditch.

We blundered about for a bit before dropping into The Hollow and catching the ramping bench cut which once supported the wooden trestle and flume. This led us up, through heavy brush and fallen trees, to the IHC at a section where it is a deep and broad ditch, about 1/4 mile east of the Beacroft.

As mentioned before, the IHC is marked as a Forest Service trail on the 1962 TNF map. We had fairly easy going, despite the fact that no one has maintained this fine old ditch trail for many a decade. In short order we passed the farthest point I had reached, last week, and soon entered upon a long section which had been trestled and flumed. Catherine caught sight of a road paralleling the ditch-line, just above, and struggled up to it and followed it. It soon dropped down to the ditch-line, tho.

As we appraoched Tadpole Canyon we admired many fine sections of the old ditch-trail, notched directly into cliffs and rock outcrops, with fine views across the North Fork canyon to Big Valley Bluff and the fine 100-150-foot waterfall low in Big Valley. In several places the trail has slipped away in rock slides and snow avalanches and one must pick one's way very carefully over steep slopes above cliffs.

We encountered thousands of Plainleaf Fawn Lilies in full bloom. These small plants thrive on wet rocky ledges. Some bloom pure white, others grade in purples. They were astonishingly beautiful and profuse.

At Tadpole we found a series of charming waterfalls and cascades. The ditch-line led to a crossing of the creek which would have been easy were the creek just a mite lower. The easy crossing required a jump of four feet. The only problem was that the rocks were wet and polished. So we played it safe and scrambled down a minor talus slide to a point lower on the creek where we could ford the fast and icy waters.

On the east side of Tadpole, the IHC resumes easy to follow, but soon enters a cliffy area where it becomes less distinct and where, again, some caution must be used.

At last the IHC gets clear of the rough steeps near Tadpole and resumes the form of a ditch. But just about as this point the brush becomes thicker, and thicker, and thicker. We rounded the corner out of Tadpole onto the main North Fork canyon wall and found a vast sea of Green Manzanita and Bush Chinquapin and Huckleberry Oak. Even the bears had had to walk on top of the bushes, as we could see from their trunks, smoothed and bruised by bear feet.

We struggled along for a hundred yards or so, hoping that the brush would open up, or at the least some kind of decent bear trail would resolve itself from this vast knotted flowering thicket. But no.

This large brush-field is plainly visible from Big Valley Bluff. One can see the IHC crossing it, and to see it is to know, it couldn't be easy, and might be impossible.

We did get far enough around the corner to see the cliffs above the IHC between Tadpole and New York Canyon, and to see the big waterfall in Big Granite Canyon, across the North Fork; also, Snow Mountain, and even Basin and Castle Peaks, away north in the upper South Yuba. But never a view up the great canyon to the crest.

Looking down the North Fork, we could see the entire length of Sawtooth Ridge, with Moody Ridge in the distance.

The afternoon shadows were deepening as we returned, helping to bring out detail in the high ragged cliffs of Big Valley Bluff. Tadpole seemed icier than ever. And then, as we meandered along the old canal line, my eye was caught by a distinct trail climbing above the ditch. We took a chance on it and found that it was the same road-thing Catherine had followed earlier. It seems to be quite and old road, constructed to haul the thousands of board feet of lumber needed for the trestle and flume in Tadpole Canyon. It could only lead directly back to the pass where the Beacroft begins.

So we followed it up and out, stopping at a nice rocky overlook along the way, and found that this old road does lead directly into the pass. It is artfully concealed, tho, near the pass itself. I am convinced that this road forms the beginning of the IHC Trail as depicted on the 1962 TNF map. In fact, it makes a better fit to the 1962 map than any possible combination of Beacroft Trail and trestle-ramp.

All in all, a very nice day high along the south wall of the North Fork canyon.

On our way down the hill we stopped at Westville, near the Mumford Bar Trail, and explored down a road to find the line of the IHC. There are some very lovely large Sugar Pines in the forest there at the head of Indian Canyon. The Foresthill Ranger District has been planning an "interpretive trail" for some time. It might be nice to open up the old canal as a trail in that area.

Continuing, we spotted the IHC once again as it crossed the Foresthill Road near the China Wall OHV staging area. It is interesting to get a better idea of the reality of this historic mining ditch.

In Search of the Rawhide Mine

Several weeks ago I made plans with archeologist Nolan Smith of the Foresthill Ranger District to visit the Rawhide Mine. We were to meet June 2nd at 9:00 a.m. at the Alta exit on I-80.

Last night I went to bed early, after a day of struggling though heavy brush on the Iowa Hill Canal. At 3:20 a.m. I got up and made my coffee and checked my email. Two messages from Nolan--one to say he had gone to the Alta exit on June 1st as planned, but I was not there--and then a second to say that he had discovered that it was June 2nd we were to meet, not June 1st. At 7:00 a.m. I chanced a call to his home and we decided to give it one more try. We duly met at the Alta exit and used his 4WD truck to drive out to the Euchre Bar Trail and then on down the Rawhide road.

The Rawhide is a long-defunct hard-rock gold mine in quartz veins in the Shoo Fly Complex metasediments. All kinds of interesting old equipment and buildings are at the place. A historic TNF trail leads up to the crest of Sawtooth Ridge from the North Fork of the North Fork (NFNFAR). This trail has been closed to the public since one Harry Mayo purchased the ~120 acres on the river there, in the late 1970s.

The trail and the mine itself are on TNF lands; some of the buildings, close to the confluence of Blue Canyon and the NFNFAR, are on the Mayo property. I had met Mayo on several occasions in 1979 and 1980, through my old girlfriend Dana Arthur.

Harry Mayo had quite a soft spot, or maybe you'd say it was a hard spot, for Dana. Almost every man who saw her did.

Rumor had it that Harry Mayo wished to sell the Rawhide. Merely because a historic trail passes through the property, I would like to see TNF buy the Mayo land. But the area is rich in historic mining artifacts, why, the tunnel is still open, with ore cart tracks curving out to the dumps. And parts of Blue Canyon and the NFNFAR are on the Mayo property. There are still other trails: one leads up the Lost Camp Divide between Blue Canyon and the NFNFAR, another leads up the NFNFAR to the dam site, where water was diverted to the Rawhide Pelton wheels, in the little powerhouse.

So, there are various reasons why this historic property ought to be purchased by TNF. And there are various problems: an enormous accumulation of just plain junk, for instance. There seems to be a rule that what goes down that tortuous little rocky road, never comes back up. There is a lot of clean-up to do.

The road passes through TNF lands almost all the way down to the NFNAR and the Mayo boundary. About half-way down from Iron Point a heavy gate is reached. We parked there, beside another vehicle, an SUV. A stocky, tattooed man was rolling up his sleeping bag. He seemed eager to make conversation, and identified himself as Wild Bill. Almost immediately we learned of this squatters' camp and that squatters' camp, of how this camp was clean and that other, full of garbage, of drunken threats and loud yelling and gunfire and buying and selling interests in mining claims on TNF land, of purported suicides and more.

Nolan and I walked down to the gate and found that it had a TNF lock on it. We opened it and he walked back up to get his truck. Meanwhile, Wild Bill strolled down, sleeping bag in hand, and went over the same ground again, the bad squatters and their garbage, his four months in LA. At some point I made the mistake of saying that I did not like people living down there in the canyon; that it was one thing to camp out, another thing to actually live there.

Wild Bill exploded in a torrent of profanity and threats. He was whirling in circles while shouting curses. I noticed Nolan flash his truck's lights and wondered what the hell was keeping him. Finally Wild Bill stalked back up the road and I could hear him laying into Nolan with some of the same invective. The truck wasn't moving so I walked back to see what was up.

The starter wouldn't turn the engine over, but the lights seemed bright. Just as I arrived, tho, Wild Bill hopped into his purple SUV and drove it in front of Nolan's truck. Wild Bill insisted upon loosening and cleaning the battery terminals himself. It turned out that in addition to being an Inventor and almost a Movie Star and a Schizophrenic and a Felon, he was also a Master Mechanic. Everything cleaned up and re-tightened, we tried the starter again. Nothing.

We learned again and again of how very unjustly Wild Bill was a Felon; just because he carried explosives into the Placer County Sheriff's office, they got all hot and bothered and took all Wild Bill's guns away! One of the lieutenants was a Jew, and Wild Bill muttered death threats against him while explaining that he, Wild Bill, was not Prejudiced. Schizophrenic, yes; Prejudiced, no.

And not violent, not ever, or, that is, only if you touched him.

But the starter still wouldn't turn over the engine.

So out came Wild Bill's jumper cables, and in another ten minutes we had Nolan's rig running, and in another twenty minutes' Wild Bill's impassioned lectures, repeated over and over and over, on how to avoid shorting out the Bottom Diode on one's alternator, had sufficiently lost steam to allow us to leave.

There seemed no sense in taking a chance on the truck starting up again, later. So the visit to the Rawhide was off.

Up the road we went, Wild Bill following, on his way to set up camp for the summer down by Euchre Bar. A little ways up the road we saw men working and a foot-diameter Douglas Fir came crashing down across the road.

An older man with a Stihl chainsaw had just dropped it, none too neatly, since it hung up in the branches of a Black Oak across the road. This was Harry Mayo. I walked up and introduced myself.

I was met immediately with the standard "What the Hell Are You Trespassing on My Land For" approach with which Harry greets unknown people. But just as quickly I dropped the magic name, Dana Arthur. "Remember Dana?" I asked, "tall, beautiful--she introduced us in 1979?"

Suddenly the cruel and pitiless Harry Mayo was kind. But then Wild Bill came walking up the road. "Is he with you? A friend of yours?" Harry asked, in a low voice, and I answered that I had only just met Wild Bill.

"Stay away from him, he's no good," Mayo advised, and then Wild Bill was upon us, and besieging Harry with stories of his Inventions and Donald Trump and how he wanted to buy the Rawhide just so soon as Trump came through with the Big Bucks ....

Two or three medium-sized Canyon Live Oaks and the Douglas Fir blocked our progress, so I helped throw slash over the side as Harry freed it up with his chainsaw, and Wild Bill explained again and again about the Invention and Donald Trump.

I did manage to get Harry's email address. I had the good sense, or cowardice, not to take up the issue of cutting trees on Forest Service land, trees which in no way impeded travel on the road. Why alienate Harry Mayo? I told him I hoped that TNF could buy his 120 acres. To which he responded, "Do they have Four Million Dollars?"

For that, it seems, is the asking price.

Thirty or forty minutes later we were able to continue up the road. Harry stopped us to tell us of The Pyramid in Green Valley. There are many versions of this myth, which originated with Dr. Wallace Halsey of the Christian Brotherhood. Harry had a new one: The Pyramid was not an Alien Pyramid, but an Indian Pyramid, and that, only six feet high.

This is wildly at variance with the teachings of Dr. Halsey and only goes to show how stories change with the telling.

So, Nolan and I failed entirely, and never even set eyes on the nearest buildings of the Rawhide, not to speak of the mine itself.

One thing, at least, is clear: alcoholic and schizophrenic "homeless" miners are at complete liberty to live down on the North Fork and the NFNFAR. Some of them, like Wild Bill Johnson, are professed "good" homeless schizophrenic miners; Wild Bill, to illustrate this, told Nolan and me about the time he warned a woman from Alta, who he met near the Euchre Bar bridge, never to hike in the canyon, alone. For not all the alcoholic schizophrenics are good, he explained to her.